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reed magazine logoJune 2010

Deconstructing Wikipedia continued

 Sanger 1986

Larry Sanger in the 1986 Freshman Funnies.

Like other Reedies before him, Sanger struggled to find his place in high school. He was a champion debater and played piano. But he also did cross-country running and skiing. “I was kind of a misfit,” he says. During his senior year, he quit going to class because he had already fulfilled all his requirements. Instead, he stayed home and worked on a novel—about a young artist who drops out of high school.

Meanwhile, his friend Russell Fraker ’89 brought back glowing reports about Reed. Sanger enrolled in fall 1986. A slow and deliberate reader, he was daunted at first by the sheer volume of the assignments but enjoyed philosophy, ultimately writing his thesis on Descartes with professor Marvin Levich. “My training at Reed shaped me as a thinker,” he says. “Marvin Levich more than anyone taught me how to critically examine an argument.” After Reed, Sanger went to graduate school at the Ohio State University, eventually earning a PhD in philosophy.

In the late 1990s, Sanger grew intrigued by the “millennium bug.” There was widespread concern—at times verging on panic—that the “rollover” of digits from 99 to 00 at the turn of the millennium would cause computer systems to behave erratically or even crash. Sanger created a popular digest of news reports that soon became required reading among Y2K experts.

When the new century dawned and the apocalypse failed to materialize, Sanger started casting about for a new job, sending out proposals to various friends and acquaintances. To his surprise, he heard back from a dot-com entrepreneur named Jimmy Wales. A former options trader, Wales had been involved in several moderately successful online ventures. Now he was contemplating a new project—an online encyclopedia. Wales was inspired by the success of “open-source” software projects, where an army of volunteer programmers around the world contributed lines of software and fixed one another’s mistakes. Defying all logic and good sense, the open-source system worked remarkably well. Wales wanted to apply the concept to building an encyclopedia, and was looking for a philosopher to lead the project. Sanger seemed like the perfect editor-in-chief.

In February 2000, Sanger drove his old Toyota Corolla from Columbus, Ohio, to San Diego, where BOMIS, Wales’s company, was based, to oversee the new project, dubbed Nupedia.

Sanger immediately set about crafting guidelines and recruiting volunteers. He was convinced that the only way to build a credible encyclopedia was to make sure that editors had expertise in their field, preferably with a PhD or other credential. They would assign articles, oversee a rigorous review, and make final revisions.

The project quickly attracted volunteers, but the seven-step editorial process, conducted over email, proved painfully slow. It took seven months before the first article, an article on Atonality by German music scholar Christoph Hust, was approved. By the year’s end, the 2,000 volunteers had finished fewer than two dozen articles. Software engineers at BOMIS created a new system to make collaboration easier, but it didn’t help much.

By January 2001, Nupedia seemed to be stalled. Then Sanger met up with an old friend named Ben Kovitz at a Mexican restaurant. Kovitz told Sanger about a simple program called WikiWikiWeb that offered an easy way to collaborate. It was a radical idea: anyone could edit any page at any time.

Sanger instantly recognized the enormous potential this held for his project. Within days, he sent an announcement to Nupedia’s volunteers: “Let’s make a wiki.”

…what it means is a VERY open, VERY publicly-editable series of web pages. For example, I can start a page called EpistemicCircularity and write anything I want in it. Anyone else (yes, absolutely anyone else) can come along and make absolutely any changes to it that he wants to.

At the time, Sanger thought of the wiki as an experimental offshoot that could generate content for Nupedia. He called it Wikipedia—“a silly name for what was at first a very silly project.”

(It is worth noting that since 2005, Jimmy Wales has portrayed himself as the sole founder of Wikipedia. Most sources, however, confirm Sanger’s key role in developing the site. Andrew Lih, author of The Wikipedia Revolution, calls Sanger “the earliest editor and leader;” Wikipedia’s first press release says Sanger “led the project;” and Wikipedia itself identifies him as its co-founder. For more on this convoluted question, see Further Reading.)

reed magazine logoJune 2010